Those meaningless pursuits!

(photo by Prateek Kumar Rohatgi)

About 13–14 years ago, I remember a time in my career when I used to follow Indian stock market (at that time, I was involved in developing capital markets technology — specifically brokerage solutions, smart order routers, matching engines and other exchange automation software) relatively closely and I had daily stock prices of many companies on my fingertips. I used to get many opportunities to display this knowledge. I used to impress many folks at work with this knowledge and was quite proud of it. When I think back, this was meaningless activity and effort. I did lose a lot of time following stock markets. I used to spend an hour or more every night on CNBC absorbing information on stock prices, experts’ views on market’s activity that day and the predictions for the next day. Except for showing off and stroking my own ego, this knowledge served no other purpose (perhaps some Dunning-Kruger effect in display here!). It was completely meaningless for another reason too — I had no skin in the game — I did not hold any stock portfolio. It is a different matter that even if one were to be holding stocks, daily price movements and so called experts’ views have absolutely no bearing on long term performance of stock portfolio — if at all, this may have negative effect on performance.

This was not isolated — I used to be on top of latest happenings in the world generally — I had ready views and opinions on political affairs, macro-economic affairs, etc. In addition to losing more valuable time from my life, this also created a cynical impression of the world and resulted in elevated blood pressure.

Similarly I had been running for 8 years or so now. Of these, only in the last three years did I take up structured training. The initial five years of running efforts were unstructured and random — neither did I have any purpose behind running.

Until the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, I never paid any attention to personal financial planning. The immediate uncertainty that the bankruptcy imposed on our family’s financial well -being made me wonder how long would I last with my the then-current savings (without having to liquidate the few assets that I managed to own at that time). After twelve years of earning good salaries (half of which was in the US earning US$), all I could see was two months’ worth of expenses in my bank account(s).

In my mind, I was always focused on doing meaningful things. It was not like I did not care for time and growth but as it turned out, this was just limited to mind — it did not reflect in my actions.

Too much time was lost in meaningless pursuits.

Now, I see many others around me also stuck in similar predicament.

“It is not that we have so little time but that we lose so much. … The life we receive is not short but we make it so; we are not ill provided but use what we have wastefully.” — Seneca

So, why does this happen? I can think of many reasons — laziness, self-image, ego, need for respect from others, social status etc.

I also feel like there are at least couple of cognitive heuristics at play here — availability and ‘bait and switch’. I’m stretching the context and definition of these heuristics a little though.

  • Bait and Switch: The allure of pride gets me into thinking about taking on complex/difficult tasks (‘bait’) and I ended up replacing (‘switch’) them with easier activities

I appreciate that it is not always right to categorize everything we do as meaningful and meaningless. For example, what about watching movies, reading fiction, OTT addiction, watching sports etc. We do things for relaxation. Goofing around could enliven life and recharge us for more effortful activities later. Activities become meaningless when they do not meaningfully contribute to the objective of doing those activities, only when we cajole ourselves into misguided understanding of our intentions behind those activities.

Examples of meaningless activities:

  • Watching news channels and tracking various twitter handles endlessly in the name of gaining general knowledge of the worldly happenings
  • At workplaces, most meetings and effort spent on creating various reports are largely meaningless activities as they do not create any end value

Whatever may be the cause(s) for indulging in these meaningless activities, I do think we all have at least some ability to wrest back control from them. This requires working in loops of critical thinking, prioritizing, goal orientation, execution and feedback. Coach or mentor can be useful too.

As to the need of reducing these meaningless activities, given that time and conscious effort are limited resources, I would like to think that it is definitely important to put a premium on these resources and limit their wastage — no matter what may be the purpose of one’s life.

Thankfully for me, I have come a long way in reducing these meaningless pursuits:

  • With right guidance, my running has become purposeful, progressive and transformational
  • Learning and development: it turned from being pastime to mainstream
  • My career — well, I quit corporate career altogether (this part is more recent and it is yet to pass the validity of time)

With some purposeful effort, I have come a long way. So there is clearly hope yet for all!

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